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Wakaya Perfection, LLC v. Youngevity International, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

December 11, 2018

WAKAYA PERFECTION, LLC, a Utah limited liability company; TODD SMITH, an individual; BLAKE GRAHAM, an individual; DAVE PITCOCK, an individual; BARB PITCOCK, an individual; ANDRE VAUGH, an individual; TOTAL NUTRITION, INC, d/b/a TNT a Utah corporation, Plaintiffs - Appellants,
YOUNGEVITY INTERNATIONAL, INC., a California corporation; STEVE WALLACH, an individual; MICHELE WALLACH, an individual; DAVE BRISKIE, an individual, Defendants - Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Utah (D.C. No. 2:16-CV-00315-DN)

          Jonathan O. Hafen (Jonathan R. Schofield, Michael S. Anderson, and Cynthia D. Love, with him on the briefs), of Parr Brown Gee & Loveless, Salt Lake City, Utah, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

          Jonathan W. Emord (Peter A. Arhangelsky with him on the briefs), of Emord & Associates, Gilbert, Arizona, for Defendants-Appellees.

          Before BACHARACH, EBEL, and MORITZ, Circuit Judges.


         This appeal involves the interplay between two related lawsuits. In the first one, Wakaya Perfection, LLC and its principals sued Youngevity International Corp. and its principals in Utah state court. The Youngevity parties responded by bringing their own suit against the Wakaya parties in a California federal district court and removing the Utah case to federal court. These steps resulted in concurrent federal cases sharing at least some claims and issues. For example, in both cases, the parties disagreed over whether Wakaya could bring its claims in court rather than in arbitration.

         The California litigation progressed; and in November 2017, the federal district court in Utah ordered dismissal, holding that

. the court should abstain from exercising jurisdiction under the Colorado River test and
. an arbitrator would need to decide the arbitrability of Wakaya's claims.[1]

         We reverse on both grounds: The court applied the wrong abstention test and erroneously ruled that an arbitrator should decide whether Wakaya's claims are arbitrable.

         Issues in the Appeal

         I. The district court erroneously applied the Colorado River test in dismissing the Utah lawsuit.

         The district court erred in using an inapplicable test when deciding whether to dismiss the Utah lawsuit.

         A. Reversal is necessary when the district court applies the wrong test.

         We apply the abuse-of-discretion standard when reviewing a district court's decision to abstain from exercising jurisdiction over one of two duplicative federal cases. Hartsel Springs Ranch of Colo., Inc. v. Bluegreen Corp., 296 F.3d 982, 985 (10th Cir. 2002). A district court abuses its discretion when it bases a decision on an erroneous legal conclusion. Kansas v. United States, 249 F.3d 1213, 1227 (10th Cir. 2001); see also Sprint Nextel Corp. v. Middle Man, Inc., 822 F.3d 524, 535 (10th Cir. 2016) (stating that a district court's application of the wrong legal standard constitutes an abuse of discretion). We must therefore reverse when the district court applies the wrong test. See Sierra Club v. Cargill, 11 F.3d 1545, 1548 (10th Cir. 1993) (reversing because the "[t]he district court abused its discretion" in applying "the wrong standard of review and, as a result, the wrong analytical framework").

         B. The district court applied the wrong test by treating the Colorado River test as controlling on abstention when both cases are in federal court.

         The district court applied the abstention test set out in Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976). In this opinion, the Supreme Court recognized a narrow doctrine permitting a federal court to abstain from exercising jurisdiction when a parallel case exists in state court. Colo. River, 424 U.S. at 813. Given the narrowness of this doctrine, the Colorado River test requires "exceptional circumstances" and an "important countervailing interest" for a federal court to abstain from exercising jurisdiction based on pending litigation in state court. Id. (quoting Cty. of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co., 360 U.S. 185, 189 (1959)); see also Moses H. Cone Mem'l Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 16 (1983) (noting that "the balance [is] heavily weighted in favor of the exercise of [federal] jurisdiction" in a case involving state-federal concurrent litigation).

         In this appeal, we must decide whether the Colorado River test controls when both of the cases are in federal court. We have recognized that the test applies when one of the cases is in state court. Rienhardt v. Kelly, 164 F.3d 1296, 1302 (10th Cir. 1999). In this circumstance, we have applied the Colorado River test and recognized eight pertinent factors:

1. the possibility that one of the two courts has exercised jurisdiction over property
2. the inconvenience from litigating in the federal forum
3. the avoidance of piecemeal litigation
4. the sequence in which the courts obtained jurisdiction
5. the "vexatious or reactive nature" of either case
6. the applicability of federal law
7. the potential for the state-court action to provide an effective remedy for the federal plaintiff
8. the possibility of forum shopping.

Fox v. Maulding, 16 F.3d 1079, 1082 (10th Cir. 1994).

         Here, however, both of the parallel cases were pending in federal court. In this situation, courts elsewhere have held that the Colorado River test does not apply. See Missouri ex rel. Nixon v. Prudential Health Care Plan, Inc., 259 F.3d 949, 953 (8th Cir. 2001) ("By its own terms, Colorado River applies only to concurrent state and federal litigation."); Levy v. Lewis, 635 F.2d 960, 967 (2d Cir. 1980) ("[I]t is clear . . . that abstention for purposes of judicial economy from exercising its jurisdiction under Colorado River applies only where concurrent federal-state jurisdiction exists."); cf. Life-Link Int'l, Inc. v. Lalla, 902 F.2d 1493, 1494 (10th Cir. 1990) (per curiam) ("[Paris v. Affleck, 431 F.Supp. 878 (M.D. Fla. 1977)] was a removal case regarding ...

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